Make messages memorable with concrete details

Readers recall ‘white horse,’ not ‘absolute truth’

Write “juicy hot dog,” and your readers may see a frankfurter nestled in a bun, slathered with mustard and onions. They may even taste it.

Make messages memorable with concrete copy

Hold that thought Concrete phrases like ‘white horse’ are more memorable than abstract ones like ‘basic theory.’

This “dual coding” — where your brain processes not only the words, but the sensual experience of the object the words describe — is one reason concrete copy is so powerful.

But does concrete copy — copy that shows instead of tells, that describes objects instead of ideas — help people remember messages better than abstract ones?

1. Concrete phrases nearly 4x more memorable.

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario aimed to find out. So they read study participants a series of concrete and abstract adjectives and nouns, then combined them into concrete and abstract phrases:

Concrete phrases

Abstract phrases

  • Square door
  • Rusty engine
  • Flaming forest
  • Muscular gentleman
  • White horse
  • Crippled judge
  • Young mother
  • Hungry prisoner
  • Round temple
  • Muddy village
  • Impossible amount
  • Better excuse
  • Apparent fact
  • Common fate
  • Subtle fault
  • Available knowledge
  • Rational method
  • Particular soul
  • Basic theory
  • Absolute truth

Subjects remembered

  • Almost twice as many concrete words than abstract words.
  • Nearly four times as many concrete phrases than abstract phrases.

The reason: Two concrete words become one image. It’s not any harder to see a square door than a door, for instance, so the phrases don’t take any extra effort to remember.

But abstract words like “impossible” and “amount” don’t paint pictures in your audience members’ minds. So instead of becoming images, they remain words. That makes it harder to remember abstract words — and harder still to remember abstract phrases.

People remember concrete words, phrases better


Double up: Concrete phrases become single images, making them easier to recall. But abstract phrases remain words, making them harder to remember

That’s important. Because making messages memorable is one of the four key responsibilities of a business communicator. After all, our job description is to get readers to:

  • Pay attention to our messages.
  • Understand them.
  • Remember them.
  • Act on them.

And that takes concrete details.

The communicator’s four-part job description Write messages that get readers to pay attention to, understand, remember and act on our messages. And you can’t do that without concrete details.

2. Research shows: Concrete copy sticks.

More than 40 years of research shows that readers remember information they can “see”:

  • Researchers in one study asked community college students to read a 2,100-word literary story. When asked about the story 48 hours later, they had retained the images, but forgotten the words (Sadoski, Goetz, Olivarez, Lee and Roberts, 1990).
  • Participants in another study recalled concrete texts about historical figures like Sandra Day O’Connor and Michelangelo 2x to 5x better than abstract texts — both immediately after reading and five days later (Sadoski, Goetz and Fritz, 1993).
  • In another study, researchers had undergraduates read four one-paragraph excerpts of biographies about historical figures. When the topics were equally familiar, students remembered the concrete passages much better. But when students were more familiar with the topic of the abstract passage than the concrete ones, they recalled the abstract and concrete passages equally (Sadoski, Goetz and Avila, 1995).
  • College students remembered paragraphs from NewsweekSports Illustrated, and National Geographic that they’d rated interesting 16 days after reading them. They did not remember those they’d rated importantEmotion also played an important role in remembering, according to this study (Sadoski and Quast, 1990).
  • University undergraduates remembered 50% more sentences with concrete modifiers (“The ivory chess set fell off the table”) than those with without them (“The set fell off the table”) (Anderson, 1974).

Read about more studies showing that concrete details aid recall.

Why are concrete details so effective?

These verbal images may form mental “hooks” that readers hang memories on, suggested researcher Allan Paivio (1971, 1986). He called that the “conceptual peg hypothesis.”

3. Concrete text + concrete headline = 70% greater recall.

Two professors from Texas A&M University and one from the University of the Andes wanted to learn whether concrete or abstract headlines and passages were more memorable.

Down memory lane What makes people remember? Not ideas, but things. Image by Dương Trần Quốc

First, the professors crafted a series of passages — each 56 words long and written at about the same level of readability.

Half of the passages were abstract:

Character cannot be summoned in a crisis if it has been squandered by years of compromise and excuses. The only testing ground for the heroic is the mundane. There is only one preparation for that great decision that can change a life. It is those hundreds of half conscious, self-defining, seemingly insignificant decisions made in private.

The other half were concrete:

Think twice before buying another “convenience.” Grandmother’s kitchen had a pan, spoon and a knife. It produced a Sunday dinner of roast chicken, potatoes, salad, vegetables and apple pie. The kitchen of the 1990s contains a food processor, blender, laser-cut knife system and a 20-piece cookware set that produces a Sunday dinner of microwave pizza.

Next, the researchers wrote a series of abstract and concrete headlines for each of the 56-word passages. They included:

Abstract headlineConcrete headline
Domestic DevicesCountertop Gadgets
Preferred ItemsFavorite Junk
The Laws of LiftHow a Plane Flies
A Science FindJungles in Ice
Mortal JusticeDeath Penalty

Then they asked a group of graduate students to read the copy and headlines. After time had passed, the researchers brought the students back and asked them what they remembered.

The students remembered:

  1. The concrete text with concrete headlines best of all
  2. The concrete text with abstract headlines second best
  3. The abstract text, regardless of title, least

In fact, the students remembered the concrete text 70% better than the abstract text.

Marry the concrete with the abstract.

So show and tell. Illustrate your ideas with concrete details.

Do that, and watch retention soar: One study showed that placing a concrete sentence before an abstract sentence about the same topic increased recall of the abstract sentence by 70% (Sadoski, Goetz and Fritz, 1993).

As James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, counsels:

“Make the important interesting.”
  • Color Them Fascinated

    Fun facts and juicy details might seem like the Cheez Doodles and Cronuts of communication: tempting, for sure, but a little childish and not particularly good for you.

    Not so. Concrete details are more like salad dressing and aioli — the secret sauces it takes to get the nutritious stuff down. Call it “The Vividness Effect.” It’s been proven in the lab again and again: Colorful details communicate better than dry, abstract information.

    Indeed, readers are more likely to understand and remember vivid details than dry abstractions. One study even showed that colorful details like Darth Vader toothbrushes can change people’s minds.

    At Portland creative writing workshopMaster the Art of the Storyteller — a two-day creative writing master class on July 25-26, 2018 in Portland — you’ll learn how to rivet readers with juicy details. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Show and tell: Help readers understand your big ideas by way of your specific details.
    • Play it SAFE: Six ways to add color to your message.
    • Write like a roller coaster: Are you losing them in the middle? Test your message so you can spot and fix the boring parts.
    • Write to be read: Where to sprinkle “gold coins” throughout your message to keep readers engaged.
    • Go from blah to brilliant in 15 minutes or less: Quick ways to add concrete detail to even the most tedious topics.

    Learn more about the Master Class.

    Register for Master the Art of Storytelling Workshop in Portland.

    Browse all upcoming Master Classes.

    Would you like to hold an in-house Make Your Copy More Creative workshop? Contact Ann directly.


Sources: Ian Begg, “Recall of Meaningful Phrases,” Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, vol. 11 (1972), pp. 431-439

Prabu David, “News Concreteness and Visual-Verbal Association: Do News Pictures Narrow the Recall Gap Between Concrete and Abstract News?Human Communication Research, Vol. 25, No. 2, December 1998, pp. 180-201

S. Hidi and W.H. Baird, “Strategies for increasing text-based interest and students’ recall of expository texts,” Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 1988, pp. 465-483

R.W. Kulhavy and I. Swenson, “Imagery instructions and the comprehension of text, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 45, 47-51

TJ Larkin & Sandar Larkin, “Concrete words lead to better performance,” Larkin Page No. 31, March 2006

Allan Paivio, Imagery and verbal processes, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971

Allan Paivio, Mental representations: A dual coding approach, Oxford University Press, 1986

Mark Sadoski, E.T. Goetz and J.B. Fritz, “A causal model of sentence recall: Effects of familiarity, concreteness, comprehensibility and interestingnesss,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 25, 1993, pp. 5-16

Mark Sadoski, E.T. Goetz and J.B. Fritz, “Impact of concreteness on comprehensibility, interest and memory for text: Implications for dual coding theory and text design,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 85, 1993, pp. 291-304

Mark Sadoski; E.T. Goetz; A. Olivarez, Jr.; S. Lee; and N.M. Roberts. “Imagination in story reading: The role of imagery, verbal recall, story analysis and processing levels,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 1990, pp. 55-70

Mark Sadoski, Ernest T. Goetz and Maximo Rodriguez, “Engaging Texts: Effects of Concreteness on Comprehensibility, Interest, and Recall in Four Text Types,” Journal of Educational Psychology 92, 2000, pp. 85-95

Mark Sadoski and Z. Quast, “Reader response and long term recall for journalistic text: The roles of imagery, affect and importance,” Reading Research Quarterly, Vol.25, No. 4, Autumn 1990, pp. 256-272

S.E. Wade and R.B. Adams, “Effects of importance and interest on recall of biographical text,” Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 1990, pp. 331-353

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